South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to sign the Competition Amendment Bill into law today, February 13, 2019, continuing a busy seven-day streak for major legislative antitrust developments on the continent (see here). The new law will be amending the venerable Competition Act, one of the preëminent antitrust statutes of the continent. The amendment has been pushed for by Minister for Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel. The official Presidential commentary on today’s signing notes the novel fights against “concentration and economic exclusion as core challenges” to the country’s growth, as well as the perceived dangers of economic exclusion from major markets of small and black-owned businesses.
As a trio of competition attorneys write in a recent article in the Journal of European Competition Law & Practice, the Amendment Bill alters key provisions of the South African Competition Act focusing specifically on the redistribution of wealth and transformation of ownership in lieu of pursuing traditional antitrust goals.
The Bill provides for greater ministerial intervention at the initial stage of a merger (based on national security), during the merger investigation (based on public-interest grounds) and broadens the right of appeals to parties outside the merger control review.
The Bill lowers the standard that the South African Competition Commission must meet to prosecute cases and foreshadows a risk of increased third-party interventionism more generally.
The departure from a traditional substantial lessening of competition (SLC) test to an adverse effects-based test, which takes public interests considerations into account, is likely to result in the injection of greater subjectivity into the decision-making process and parties’ increased difficulty in self-assessment of conduct particularly in relation to dominant firms.
AAT has published further articles on the topic here, here, and here.
Discarding any objectivity and international best practice, the Minister of Economic Development, Mr. Ebrahim Patel, has once again expressed his desire to use the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) as an agency to actively promote the government’s industrial policies.
Speaking at a media briefing, Patel told journalists that the focus of the Economic Development Department would be to grow “black ownership of new industry in South Africa and using state funding to grow the work of black entrepreneurs”.
Patel said the intention of using the SACC to launch a market inquiry into the retail sector was to “ensure that we’ve got a competitive sector, but also an inclusive sector”. This statement and the decision to institute a market inquiry into the retail sector is, at least at this stage, problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the retail sector is arguably one of the most competitive sectors in South Africa, and any barrier to entry into the sector is a natural consequence of a highly competitive market. Furthermore, Patel identified exclusivity clauses (which are popular provisions inserted into lease contracts between mall anchor tenants and the developers) will be one of the issues that the inquiry will look into. Patel, unfortunately, overlooked the fact that there has already been an investigation relating to these clauses. At the conclusion of the investigation, the SACC found that there is not sufficient evidence of anti-competitive impact, resulting from these clauses, and thus the SACC refrained from referring the matter to the South African Competition Tribunal (“SACT”). This thus begs the question, whether it is necessary to institute a market inquiry with regard to the issue of exclusivity clauses and expose the industry to intensive and unnecessary costs?
In an article written by Mfundo Ngobese in the official newsletter of the SACC, Ngobese responds to an article written by John Oxenham and Patrick Smith, presented at the Eighth Annual Conference on Competition Law, Economics and Policy titled “What is Competition Really Good For?”. The main focus of Ngobese’s article is evaluating the merits of an argument put forward by Oxenham and Smith: that the Competition Authorities should engage in a balancing exercise between the short term impact on public interest issues (such as employment) versus the long term benefits that are associated with effective competition (such as increased economic growth which leads to more jobs created).
Public Interest Test
This brings us back to Patel’s decision to use public interest as the main ground on which a market inquiry into the retail sector should be instituted. The decision to launch a market inquiry based on the anti-competitiveness of exclusivity clauses is simply untenable in light of the SACC’s findings in respect of a previous investigation into the issue, as well as the fact that the retail industry is highly competitive. Using any ‘anti-competitive’ argument as justification for launching this particular market inquiry, would amount to nothing more than a ‘fishing expedition’ by Patel and the Authorities.
The broad public interest grounds which are increasingly becoming prevalent as Patel transcends into the competition arena, coupled with the ill-defined rationale, guidelines and justifications behind the use of public interest grounds in competition review, is contributing significantly to uncertainty in the South African economy.
Policy stability leads to political, social and economic uncertainty. Policy stability in contrast created an “investment friendly culture where every investor feels protected and free to do business”.
While businesses in the retail industry (and indeed businesses across the board) in South Africa, are desperately seeking certainty, Patel is seeking a ‘second bite of the cherry’.
The second issue with Patel’s reason for instituting the market inquiry relates to him wanting to achieve an “inclusive retail sector” and how to bring more “black South Africans into the sector”. While transformation in the economy is certainly an important issue that needs to be addressed in South Africa, it is the manner and form in which such transformation takes place, which is concerning. In this regard, the SACC is patently not the appropriate institution to ensure that there are sufficient black-owned businesses in the retail sector.
Patel seems to have, unfortunately, conflated the objectives and role of his own department, with the objectives and purpose of the SACC. This comes at a time when other political meddling has led to the resignation of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, who quit his post on Sunday, after almost a year of politically-motivated wrangling and formal investigations being initiated and ultimately dropped by President Jacob Zuma.
The influence that Minister Patel has had on the SACC’s policy is undoubtedly evident when one evaluates the increased reliance of the South African Competition Authorities to impose stringent conditions in approving mergers.
In justifying the use of public interest grounds in competition law, the Competition Authorities may point out that South Africa’s Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (the “Act”) permits and requires public considerations to be taken into account. However, the use of public interest grounds should not, as seems to be the case, be seen as independent issues unrelated to competition which is to be considered in isolation of the purpose of the Act. The Competition Authorities’ purpose, as set out in Section 2 of the Act is to “promote and maintain competition in the Republic…”. It is likely that Patel views the following two subsections which state that competition must be maintained or promoted to:
“promote employment and advance the social and economic welfare of South Africans” (Section 2(c)); and
“promote a greater spread of ownership, in particular to increase the ownership stakes of historically disadvantaged persons” (Section 2(f))
as the basis for his increased reliance on pushing his Department’s policy objectives through the channels of the SACC. However, placing an overly zealous reliance on these two subsections, fundamentally misconstrues the purpose and function of competition law.
Subsections (c) and (f) quoted above are not self-standing provisions; they are qualified by the general purpose of the Act. Furthermore, by viewing or placing greater reliance on these provisions as self-standing provisions, one would run into an inconceivable difficulty when considering section 2(a), which states as a further objective of the Act (and the purpose of the promoting competition) is to promote the “efficiency, adaptability and development of the economy”. At least from a Section 2 perspective, public interest considerations, at best, have to be reconciled with competition issues.
Market inquiries have often been used very successfully as an investigative tool by a number of competition agencies, especially in Europe. However, a market inquiry requires significant resource expenditure by both the SACC and the market participants and often casts a bad shadow over the relevant industry to the detriment of companies who have not engaged in any anti-competitive conduct. Market inquiries should thus be used sparingly and only when there is significant concern that a particular market is not functioning in a competitive manner. A market inquiry should certainly not be used as a means to affect change in the industry in order simply to suit the objectives of the Government.
There is a further institutional concern which must be noted, and that is that the SACC has, like all institutions, limited resources. In order to function as an efficient and formidable competition law agency, the SACC should ensure that what limited resources are available, is best utilised to achieve a competitive market environment in South Africa.
Before even engaging in policy discussions, as those that Patel is pushing for, it would firstly be necessary to ensure that the SACC has the requisite expertise to deal with policy agenda’s which are far broader than pure competition law. There are already institutions, as Patel has recognised, whose responsibility it is to promote economic growth and to address transformation within the economy. It is not the responsibility of the Competition Authorities to address these issues as directly as has been the case in recent years.
The need for transformation and the promotion of black industrialists is an issue to be addressed by the Government, however, it seems that there is a general lack of regard to competition concerns when Government departments form their policies. A good illustration of this is the significant criticism levelled at the new agreement struck between South African Airways (“SAA”) and the Department of Trade and Industry (“DTI”), which will see SAA redirect R10 billion rand of procurement spending to “black industrialists” (“SAA Agreement”).
While this may appear to be a noble policy, the question remains whether new “black industrialists” are coming into existence, or whether existing “black industrialists” are simply going to make substantial profits at the expense of true development.
The SAA Agreement, which requires, without anything more, that a certain amount of supplies (fuel) be purchased from specific suppliers (‘black suppliers’) strikes at the heart of competition. Effectively certain existing competitors are being excluded in order to favour other competitors. In no way does this promote ‘transformation’ within the industry as the existing barriers to entry remain.
From a competition point of view, the benefit of having healthy competition in the commercial aviation market seems to have been overlooked by the DTI. Apart from the direct benefit that flows from actual cheaper air tickets, the knock-on benefits of stimulating the leisure tourism seems to have been overlooked.
While acknowledging that the SAA decision taken by the DTI is not directly linked to competition law, the disregard that the DTI appears to have to competition in the aviation industry is in stark contracts to the to the Competition Authorities in Botswana who have launched a market inquiry into the aviation sector (although notably with the focus being on unscheduled flights), due to having recognised the importance that the price of flight tickets may have on the tourism industry and the benefits that would flow from boosting the tourism industry.
Considering that SAA is battling financially, and is highly dependent on State bailouts, it is baffling that the State’s primary objective is not to ensure that SAA operates viably and competitively, before risking such competitiveness in favour of a policy which is quite frankly, difficult to justify as there is no evidence that such policies actually achieve genuine transformation or promote economic growth.
One can’t help but notice the irony when it comes to the Government’s social and transformation policies. The Government, and Patel in particular, consistently ignore well established economic principles and the benefits that flow from healthy competition in the economy, in favour of promoting short-sighted top-down “transformative industrial policies”, rather than spending the scarce resources on promoting and developing South Africa from a bottom-up approach.
For instance, poor service delivery in South Africa has a significant detrimental economic and social impact on South Africa. Why improving service delivery does not appear to be high on the radar of the Department of Economic Development or the DTI, is surprising if the objectives of these departments are to promote ‘black businesses’, as the areas which are most severely affected by poor service delivery are generally areas where there is a high percentage of black persons living, who form part of the lower income brackets. In other words, areas where the promotion of small businesses and healthy competition would be most valuable to any social development objectives.
Unfortunately, however, a recent report issued by the Institute of Race Relations stated that the highest incidence of recent public protests in relation to poor service delivery, took place in areas were the most “fruitless and wasteful government expenditure” took place.
Recent statistics show that South Africa’s unemployment rate is increasing, bringing into question whether the policy intervention that Patel has been championing over the past 6 years, is indeed yielding the positive results envisioned by the Government. While the purpose of this article is not to evaluate and criticise all policy interventions, the point to be made is that the effectiveness of policy intervention to advance socio-economic interests in the South Africa is in no way proving effective. While there may be a number of reasons for failing policies, it appears worrying that politicians such as Patel are prepared to risk the independence, efficient functioning and objectives of the Competition Authorities, which are ultimately to promote competition in the market, in order to promote industrial policies when there is so much uncertainty whether such policies will truly ensure long term benefits for the Country as a whole.
Two recently issued reports, namely, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Report and the IMD World Development Report, succinctly confirm the concerns and issues which are addressed in this article.
The BCG Report evaluates the reasons for South Africa’s stagnant economic growth. The report acknowledges that it is a necessity to improve education and healthcare and reduce unemployment to advance growth; however, the report importantly states that:
“There is no hiding from the fact that short-term self-interested behaviour has been prevalent; that the emphasis in South Africa has been on cutting the pie rather than growing it.”
This statement could not be truer if one considers Patel’s disregard of well established benefits that flow from a competitive environment, in favour of promoting industrial policies. The following statement by Adam Ikdal on the poor leadership in South Africa, corroborates this papers view:
“a concerted program of execution is essential. In many instances this may mean putting the greater good ahead of the individual or institutional interests.”
The IMD World Competitiveness Report (IMD Report) not only complements the BCG Report, but essentially confirms the views of this paper, with empirical evidence. The IMD Report indicates that South Africa has dropped from a ranking of 37 in 2012 to 53 in 2015 on a list of the world’s most competitive countries. The IMD Report not surprisingly, identified South Africa’s infrastructure shortfall, poor service delivery and lack of education and skills as some of the major contributors to South Africa’s slip down the rankings.
Crucially the director of the IMD World Competitiveness Centre, Arturo Bris, identified what sets the top performing countries apart from the others. This is what Bris had to say, which is essentially, the basis upon which the criticism identified in this paper is levelled at Patel’s policy objectives:
“Productivity and efficiency are in the driver’s seat of a competitiveness wagon. Simply put, business efficiency requires greater productivity and the competitiveness of countries is greatly linked to the ability of enterprises to remain profitable over time”.
In conclusion, we note that both transformation and fostering economic growth is an objective of the South African Government. This is, however, no justification for abandoning the tried and tested benefits that flow from a competitive market, in favour of promoting short-term industrial policies such as Patel is doing. Should the SACC adopt Patel’s industrial policies as part of their policy objectives, the SACC ultimately risks its independence and may effectively become an ‘umbrella institution’ under which any industrial policy agendas are driven. This would be an undesirable and intolerable outcome, and one which the South African Competition Authorities need to carefully guard against.
 We have dealt with this aspect of merger control in more depth in previous articles, please see the following link.
 To illustrate the extent that public interest considerations are used by the Competition Authorities, the last intermediate merger that was approved unconditionally was in 2008. Since then, there have been 14 mergers that have been approved subject to conditions. As to large mergers, approximately 10 of the most recent 40 mergers that have come before the Competition Tribunal, 5 have been approved subject to conditions. It should be noted that it is the SACC that reviews intermediate mergers, while large mergers are reviewed bu the Competition Tribunal.
 Sections 2(c) and (f) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998.
 For example the Industrial Development Corporation.
 See the AfriGroup Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Afgri Ltd merger where the South African Competition Tribunal (“SACT”) Acknowledged that the merger poses no horizontal or vertical competition law concerns. Despite reaching such a conclusion, the SACT, approved the merger on condition that an agreement reached by the parties in terms of which Afgri would contribute R90 million over four years, to a development fund for small farmers via the provision of loans, training and grain storage discounts. Similar burdensome conditions are becoming all the more prevalent in merger control, and are often self-imposed by the SACT and are not agreed upon by the parties as was the case in Afgri.
In what can only be described as a significant step backwards in ensuring that the more established of the emerging economies enforce the application of sound and established (e.g., ICN) best practices in relation to merger remedies, AAT has discovered that the much publicised acquisition of South Africa’s AFGRI by international private investment group AgriGroupe has recently been subjected to a private side deal between the South African Government and the merging parties, sidestepping the Commission’s jurisdiction and decision-making competence. According to its terms, Afgri is obligated to make available R90 million (US$9m, over four years) to certain South African farmers & enrol emerging farmers in development programmes and assist poultry farmers.
Minister’s side deal replaces Competition Act merger remedies
There is little doubt that these forced conditions constitute matters best handled by the relevant antitrust regulator as proper remedies in a merger-control proceeding. At the outer limit, relevant departments such as the Department of Water, Forestry and Fisheries might have input into them. Yet, it appears that these conditions are purely negotiated by the Minister of Economic Development – the same office that sacked the prior chairman of the Competition Commission, Shan Ramburuth, and which has been subjected to criticism of meddling in the independent authority’s affairs.
Following the questionable intervention of various South African Government departments in Walmart’s acquisition of Massmart (which is, as we have previously noted, the origin of the non-competition merger remedies), it appears that the same departments have in effect sought to force the merging parties into agreeing to perform services on behalf of the Government in exchange for the departments’ non-intervention before the Competition Tribunal proceedings.
Following a pattern…
Heather Irvine, counsel for the merging parties, confirmed that the “merger was approved (with the agreement as a condition) after the Tribunal hearing yesterday.” She points out that “this agreement was voluntarily entered into by the merging parties in a spirit of goodwill and as a demonstration of Afgri’s commitment to growing the African food sector, not because of concerns about any public interest issues in terms of the Competition Act,” pointing to the transcript to be made available shortly. We appreciate counsel’s confirmation that the side agreement was reached entirely outside the confines of the SA Competition Act between the ministry and the parties.
It is apparent that since Minister Patel has assumed his role as Minister of Economic Development (an “activist, interventionist and micromanaging minister,” according to the former Competition Tribunal chairman David Lewis), the competition authorities’ independence has been undermined (see some of our prior articles here and here). In particular, the merger process is little more than a means by which the South African Government seeks to extract from merging parties a series of additional unwarranted (industrial policy) conditions. It is in our view a highly problematic development. In sum, the S.A. merger review process remains a highly contentious issue and while the parties in this case sought to placate Government, others may not be as willing.
The sector has recently been the subject of significant attention from the Commission, the South African health minister in particular, and the S.A. government in general. In spite of the perilous state of South Africa’s public health system, the government appears to have invested more time in deflecting from the obvious problems in the public branch by subjecting the private sector to a costly investigation. From a procedural-history point of view, it is interesting to note that the market inquiry provision was brought into effect by way of Section 6 of the amended South African Competition Act. Although there were other areas of the legislation to be amended, it is noteworthy that only the market inquiry provision was brought into effect.
Many have suspected that the motivation behind the private healthcare inquiry was based on aspirations from outside the ambit of the Commission, particularly since the launch of the South African government’s National Health Insurance policy scheme (designed to achieve the noble aim of universal health insurance coverage, not entirely unlike the United States’ “Obamacare” effort) may ultimately cause the demise of a robust private healthcare sector.
Independence of Commission questioned
With this in mind, what is perhaps most interesting is a recent public submission made by the newly appointed 37-year old Acting Competition CommissionerTembinkosi Bonakele in the South African media. In an article co-authored with Ms. Paremoer, the Commission principal responsible for the healthcare inquiry, entitled “Market inquiries an important advocacy tool” (also published in the Sunday Times), Bonakele attempts to deflect any suggestions of government involvement in (or other ministerial influence over the pursuit of) the market inquiry. This approach seems at odds with Mr Bonakele’s predecessor, Shan Ramburuth – who was unceremoniously let go by the same government in a public display of shaming last year – in seeking to justify the motivation behind the private healthcare inquiry. (We note that the present government has an apparent history of “letting go” unruly cabinet members in unusual and rather bombastic fashion, see here and here.)
Ramburuth’s Commission had previously stated expressly, for instance, that the inquiry was intended at least in part to review the sector for collusive behaviour, while Mr. Bonakele now disavows this rationale and claims that any such findings would merely be a side effect of the inquiry (“[o]f course, during such an inquiry, we may come across anti-competitive practices that need to be rooted out”).
In his piece, the Acting Commissioner seeks to reassure those who “remain confused about the […] intended market inquiry,” and states that the “inquiry is not a stalking horse“:
“we are simply seeking to understand how to improve efficiency and competition” in what he calls the “complicated web” of the healthcare industry.
Is this a case of Shakespearean “the [man] doth protest too much”, especially when keeping in mind that the private healthcare sector has previously been acknowledged to be competitive and efficient. Mr. Bonakele has previously emphasised his independence, despite being referred to in the press as Minister “Patel’s man”:
“I haven’t responded to the media debate out there because I don’t think one has to stand on a mountain and say ‘I’m independent’. Actions speak louder than words.” [Source: BDLive]
The aim of the inquiry, according to the Acting Commissioner, is to improve competition and efficiency in the sector to such a degree that the ordinary man on the street will have full access. A very noble goal indeed, but when juxtaposed with the fundamental function and intention of the NHI,it is highly contradictory: the private healthcare sector is, by definition, not in the business of providing access to everybody. The public NHI body’s own slogan, on the other hand, shows that the national insurance programme fulfills precisely that role: “NHI is premised on the ideology that all South Africans are entitled to access quality healthcare services.”
What is perhaps of greater concern (with a wider applicability than just the healthcare sector, public or private) to competition-law enforcement in South Africa as a whole, is the confluence of the government’s industrial policy ambitions with otherwise supposedly independent Commission investigations and its competition adjudication based in the pure law & economics of antitrust. As previously reported in our piece on political interventionism in South African competition law, the Commission should seek to demonstrate its complete independence from the cabinet and executive branch as a whole, and avoid falling into the trap FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez warned against: the “proper goals” of competition law are best solved when a competition authority is focused on competitive effects and on consumer welfare and its analysis is not “interrupted to meet social and political goals.”
In sum, one must hope that Mr. Bonakele can be taken at his word when he says that, while “[m]aybe people think the minister will use the commission as a tool, but it’s just not possible. This is a legal process we are talking about.“